Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Carmel on the Case: Pay Back?
After a Florida Fish and Wildlife officer testified in court recently, he ended up being investigated by his own agency. That's because Miami-Dade County, which was on the other side of the issue, complained about him. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero is on the case.
WSVN -- Officer William Stiffler: "I do."
William Stiffler is a 15-year veteran of the Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC.
At issue: what happened after Hurricane Wilma hit South Florida, when tons of mulch were dumped in an environmentally sensitive part of South Miami-Dade, called the 8.5-square-mile area.
Officer Stiffler: "And our main focus was the illegal dumping going on in the area."
Stiffler says he patrolled the area with other law enforcement officers. He says they stopped trucks with roofing debris and other trash from dumping there. But trucks full of mulch were allowed in.
Officer Stiffler: "So I got on the radio, and I said, 'Let me get this clear. If they're clean mulch, we are not to follow the vehicle.' They said, 'If it's clean mulch, don't follow the vehicle.' So we would let, quote-unquote, clean mulch vehicles in to dump the debris."
Clean mulch doesn't contain any garbage. It's just chopped-up trees and vegetation. Several property owners, like Ed Chapman, let mulch be put on their property after Wilma. Chapman got in big trouble with Miami-Dade County, because officials contend the mulch was full of trash.
Property owners say, if that's the case, authorities should never have allowed those trucks into the area to dump on their properties in the first place.
Patricia Baloyra, attorney: "But in terms of allowing these truckloads in that were, quote-unquote, clean mulch, those were allowed in over a series of months?"
Officer Stiffler: "Correct."
Patricia Baloyra: "With the knowledge of Miami-Dade County?"
Officer Stiffler: "Correct."
It was significant testimony.
Patricia Baloyra: "It was the first on the record statement that the county and other jurisdictions allowed that mulch into the 8.5-square-mile area, made that poor decision after Wilma."
Within days of Stiffler's testimony, his boss got a telephone call from DERM, the Department of Environmental Resources Management.
The caller reportedly said the officer had testified for the defense and against DERM.
According to documents obtained by 7News, a second DERM employee contacted Stiffler's boss six days later. This time, it was an e-mail saying, DERM was unaware Stiffler was going to testify.
Stiffler had been subpoenaed by attorney Patti Baloyra, who says the county attorney was aware the officer would testify.
Patricia Baloyra: "It is DERM exercising its muscle to intimidate."
Stiffler was cleared: four months later. The final report indicates the complaint was unfounded.
Stiffler turned down our request for an interview, but Baloyra says, the officer should never have been put through an investigation in the first place.
Patricia Baloyra: "It's one thing to be sour grapes about something, but to take an officer's career, his integrity, his career, his pension and put that on the line because you're mad that he came in and testified truthfully under oath, I mean, it's just ridiculous."
Rodney Barreto, FWC: "It concerns, certainly concerns the administration of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission."
Rodney Barreto is the Chairman of the FWC.
Rodney Barreto: "It's a little disturbing, because he was only doing his job and, you know, he is a sworn officer for the state of Florida, and he testified truthfully, and you can't fault an officer for testifying truthfully."
Miami-Dade County insists it did not target Stiffler.
Meanwhile, DERM is still going after properties with mulch. In 17 of those cases, the county identified the companies that did the dumping and ordered them to remove it.
But in cases where the trucking companies could not be identified, property owners like Ed and Linda Chapman face fines and huge costs to remove the material.
Ed Chapman: "We are now broke. We are literally broke."
Carmel Cafiero: "But it looks like something good may come of all this. Now that the Chairman of the FWC knows about the issue, he says the property owners should get help in getting the mulch removed. And he's going to try to put together a plan to do just that."
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